By James L. Curtis and Craig B. Simonsen

OSHA has just released a new recommendation that employers “voluntarily” comply with lower chemical permissible exposure limits (PELs) than those that currently exist in the OSHA regulations. OSHA’s explanation is that the OSHA PELs are out-of-date and inadequately protective for the chemicals that are regulated in the workplace and that it is too difficult to update the OSHA PELs through the normal regulatory rulemaking process.

To assist employers in protecting their employees, OSHA has just made two resources available, a side-by-side comparison PELs chart, and a chemical toolkit. OSHA’s new annotated PELs tables provide a side-by-side comparison of the OSHA PELs for general industry to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health PELs, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended exposure limits, and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienist threshold limit values. The side-by-side comparison provides an easily accessible reference source for regulatory standards and recommended workplace exposure limits.

The OSHA toolkit is intended to assist employers in identifying safer chemicals that can be used in place of more hazardous ones. OSHA intends that the toolkit will allow employers to go step-by-step through information, methods, tools, and guidance in either eliminating hazardous chemicals or to make informed substitution decisions to find safer chemicals, materials, products, and processes.

Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, stated that “there is no question that many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective.” “I advise employers, who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe, to utilize the occupational exposure limits on these annotated tables, since simply complying with OSHA’s antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe.”

While OSHA states that compliance with the lower PELs is “voluntary,” employers should consider themselves on notice that OSHA now considers the reduced PELs as necessary to adequately protect the health of employees.  Accordingly, employers would be well advised to consider these reduced PELs when conducting a job hazard analysis and, where possible, make every effort to meet these lower exposure limits.